When Binita had her first period, she knew what she had to do. Growing up in the mountainous district of Gorkha in central Nepal, she had observed how her mother and every other female family member changed their behavior when they had their period: They slept in different rooms, were not allowed to touch water, food or male family members, couldn’t enter the kitchen and couldn’t take part in religious ceremonies.
Much has changed in Binita’s life since her teenage years. She’s now 37 years old, is married with two teenage sons and lives in an apartment on the outskirts of the capital, Kathmandu.
But she still adheres to menstrual restrictions, known as chhaupadi in Nepali. And despite the recent criminalisation of the widespread practice, she doesn’t plan on stopping any time soon.
“I have to follow it, no matter what others say about it,” says Binita.
A law was passed in August 2017 stipulating that anyone who forces a woman to follow chhaupadi would face a three-month prison sentence, a $40 fine or both. It wasn’t the first time the government has passed legislation to curb the tradition. In 2008, the Ministry of Women, Child and Social Welfare issued guidelines to eradicate chhaupadi in the country – and NGOs have tried to curb the practice for decades with limited success.
Binita says she’s following the practice of her own free will and that she’s not worried the police might suddenly show up on her doorstep to charge her husband. “Laws are often passed in Nepal, but they’re rarely implemented,” she says.
Binita’s beliefs echo the voices of activists, social workers and NGOs who have warned that simply criminalizing chhaupadi wouldn’t put an end to a practice that dates back hundreds of years.
In its strongest form, which is mainly prevalent in western Nepal, menstruating girls and women are banished from their homes and have to live in menstrual huts, or alongside cattle, while they have their period. These simple structures often lack doors or locks and leave their inhabitants vulnerable to sexual assault, animal attacks and freezing temperatures, which has led to numerous deaths.
Radha Paudel, founder of Action Works Nepal and a menstrual rights activist, told News Deeply that while the law has started a public discussion and helped raise awareness about the dangers of chhaupadi, more than 95 percent of women in the country still practice some form of menstrual restriction.
In order to eradicate chhaupadi and other forms of menstrual discrimination, Paudel says the underlying, deep-rooted belief that women are impure during their periods needs to be drastically changed in society.
“It’s a private matter, it’s stigma, it’s a taboo. Define it however you like, but there’s huge silence around it.”
Chanda Chaudhary, senior program officer at Restless Development, an NGO working on women’s and girls’ rights, says that, while various forms of menstrual discrimination are still widespread across the country, many NGOs focus only on the hygiene and safety aspects for women and girls when they are banished.
But while this is one of the strictest and most dangerous forms of menstrual discrimination in the country, it’s also just the visible tip of the iceberg of patriarchal traditions in Nepali society.
“We realized that nowadays people are just thinking that [banning] chhaupadi means that a girl can’t stay outside the house,” Chaudhary says. “But it’s not just about that. It’s about various kinds of discrimination that come along with it. When women aren’t allowed to take part in a social event, in a religious event, that’s a form of menstruation-based discrimination and it could be called chhaupadi.”
A Question of Dignity
Following chhaupadi nowadays doesn’t put Binita’s health in danger. She sleeps in her apartment, can use the family toilet and – since she’s not allowed into the kitchen – she’s relieved of many household chores.
“It’s resting time, almost like my holidays, because I don’t do anything,” Binita says.
But activists say the continued existence of even milder forms of the practice is an obstacle to eradicating it at all levels. As well as eliminating more severe forms of menstrual discrimination, Paudel says, the long-term goal should be to address the beliefs and myths that fuel inequality and gender-based discrimination in society.
“We need to tackle the underlying logic. It’s important to see this in terms of women’s rights, in terms of dignity,” Paudel says.
Chaudhary agrees. “We’re trying to counter this belief that menstruation is impure by coming up with a broader set of issues, where we’re talking about safety, security, education and hygiene,” she says.
She adds that in order to achieve long-term change, priority should be given to creating an enabling environment for women – which includes everything from access to education to economic empowerment and engaging with male key influencers in their community. “If we just empower a woman, it would be really difficult for her to bring the much-needed change if there isn’t an environment where she can do that.”
Back in Kathmandu, Binita’s apartment has come to life after her sons have come back from school. Taking a break from playing on his smartphone, her older son briefly joins the conversation. He says he and his brother keep telling her mother that she doesn’t have to follow these traditions.
“But she wants to do it,” he says, adding, “and our dad is pretty strict with these things.”
However, once he gets married, he says he won’t expect his wife to follow any menstrual restrictions. “I don’t think it’s good. This is the 21st century and it doesn’t need to happen here.”